Find the group exercise class that’s right for you
By Nora Isaacs
Working out can be a lonely endeavor—but it doesn’t have to be. Group exercise classes offer elements of camaraderie, motivation, expertise, and diversity that solo exercise simply doesn’t have. Although group classes aren’t for everyone, they are ideal for anyone who might enjoy a sense of belonging among like-minded people with similar goals. “Group classes offer that feeling that you are a part of something greater than yourself,” says Grace DeSimone, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Group Exercise Instructor.
The buddy system
Group classes—referred to as group ex in the fitness world—can have a built-in buddy system. It’s much more appealing to invite a friend to a Zumba class than, say, to spend 30 minutes next to her on the elliptical trainer. Having a buddy boosts accountability for showing up and helps you stay engaged. The idea of an exercise buddy for motivation isn’t just anecdotal: a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people were more likely to become physically active or lose weight when a partner was engaged in the same activity.
Working out in a group can be a huge motivator to push yourself a little further than you would solo. “When you work out on your own, you have to self-motivate,” says Kat Ellis, head trainer and head instructor at Uplift Studios in New York, certified NASM personal trainer, and ACE group fitness instructor. “But when you show up for a group fit class, you can feed off the energy of the people around you, as well as the instructor,” she says. “The energy factor is really key.”
This community aspect can make or break your decision to work out. If you go often, it’s likely that you’ll get to know your fellow exercisers and instructors as well, which only reinforces the idea of creating a community and sense of belonging around working out.
The benefits of consistency and expertise
Group classes offer consistency to your exercise routine. With a weekly schedule in hand, you can plan in advance, know exactly when your class starts and ends, and have a general idea of what happens in between. This can be a huge perk if you are already inundated with decision making. It is also a more successful approach than trying to fit in a workout when you have time. “One of the greatest things about group fitness is that someone picks out the music and tells you what exercises to do,” says DeSimone. “It’s nice that someone else tells you what to do for a change. I find that’s one of the reasons women enjoy classes.”
Group classes always offer the expertise of a skilled instructor. Most classes are carefully sequenced for a safe, effective, and well-rounded workout and have the same basic structure: warm-up, fitness, and cooldown—elements that you might skip on your own.
Good instructors have been trained well and know how to provide modifications or adjust the class level according to who shows up. “Instructors are providing an experience and a service,” says Ellis. She also notes that you shouldn’t be shy about introducing yourself to the teacher or asking questions. “That’s our job, to get to know you,” she says.
All these supports lead to greater adherence. One study showed that among two groups of exercisers, the group led by an exercise professional had a higher attendance and a lower dropout rate.
Perhaps most important, group classes provide a level of diversity to combat the No. 1 enemy of working out: boredom. “A lot of times, people don’t follow through with fitness regimens because they get bored easily,” says Ellis.
The sheer variety of group classes, instructors, and settings can make all the difference between pulling on your workout leggings or heading for the couch. With the options to go spinning on Monday, conditioning on Tuesday, and weight training on Wednesday, group classes help you stay interested while working out different parts of your body.
In addition to having a menu of fitness classes to choose from, regulars at group classes know that there is often diversity within the same class. “If the instructor is doing a good job, she will change up some of the exercises and some of the music,” says DeSimone. She compares it to cooking the same thing, but adding something new. “You might be having a steak again, but it tastes a little different with different seasoning.”
A little planning goes a long way
Experts say that working out in a group class requires a little forethought. First, figure out what you want to get out of a class, such as strength, relaxation, flexibility, or a cardio workout. Be honest about your fitness level and understand your limitations, whether you have asthma or a bum knee. Then find a good match by doing a little research, reading class descriptions, and calling the studio ahead of time to ask any questions. DeSimone advises taking a trial class or at least observing a class before making any big decisions, such as buying a class pass.
Also, don’t overdo it. “In a group class, you always do more than you would do on your own, but you also don’t need somebody to beat you up,” says DeSimone. “Exercise is something you want to do for a lifetime, not something you want to suffer pain through. So give yourself some time to gradually improve your progress.” DW
Join the Club
Many kinds of group classes are available. Here are some of the most popular, from high intensity to low intensity.
what it is: High-intensity workout done at a no-frills gym, where you keep track of your rep count and weight load for every exercise with the goal of gradually increasing.
pros: Boredom is combatted with a new workout of the day, or WOD, displayed on a whiteboard for all to see.
cons: No breaks between moves, so take an intro class before diving in.
what it is: Modeled after military-style training, these high-intensity classes build strength and endurance through calisthenics and body weight exercises.
pros: Can be done anywhere with no equipment.
cons: High intensity means that beginners should set their own pace.
what it is: High-energy class set to hip-hop music.
pros: Great workout that is extremely fun and very social.
cons: Can be daunting at first to anyone intimidated by a dance floor and choreography.
what it is: Set of postures linked together with the breath.
pros: Total body-mind exercise that is a great way to get in touch with your breath and feel calm and centered.
cons: Dozens of yoga styles, with names like hatha flow, vinyasa yoga, and core yoga, can vary dramatically. Carefully read the class description or call ahead.
what it is: Balance, flexibility, and conditioning workout done on a BOSU, an inflated rubber dome with a rigid flat back.
pros: The unstable BOSU surface forces you to maintain your center of gravity, which makes the exercises more effective—especially for your core.
cons: Class could focus on aerobic or strength training, so know your goals and choose a class accordingly.
what it is: Vigorous workout on a stationary bicycle, led by an instructor and usually accompanied by music.
pros: Great cardio workout, especially for people with joint issues who don’t want to run or do other high-impact activities.
cons: Keeping your body in a flexed position for the whole class can take a toll on hip flexors, leading to lower back and hip tightness. Make sure to stretch afterward.
what it is: Sweat-inducing, dance-based workout that combines low-intensity and high-intensity moves.
pros: Routine inspired by Latin and world music is fun and relatively easy to follow.
cons: Class is expected to move together; watch out for people who aren’t following along to avoid a crash.
The Bar Method
what it is: Workout that includes a mat-based warm-up, strengthening and stretching work at a barre, and core work on the mat.
pros: Focus on isometric movements can improve posture, lengthen and strengthen muscles, and boost core strength.
cons: Moves might seem unusual; allow your body to adapt to the exercises over a few classes.
what it is: Pilates mat classes focus on core strength by promoting proper alignment, strength, balance, and flexibility.
pros: Helps strengthen abdominal muscles and also improve posture and reduce stress on the back and neck.
cons: Exercises need to be done very precisely for maximum results; it’s not a class to zone out in.
what it is: Combination of cardio, boxing, and martial arts.
pros: Total body workout includes punches and kicks aimed at improving strength, aerobic fitness, speed, flexibility, coordination, and balance.
cons: Steer clear of kickboxing if you suffer from back or joint problems.
Nora Isaacs is a freelance health writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.